I've been meaning to write about this for a while. Even though it is not specifically about development, user experience is something that creative developers should take into account when developing websites, games or other interactive experiences. Let's look at a couple of different ways of offering the user localized content, and try to analyze whether these options fall flat on their face or offer enough flexibility to answer your client's and their customers's needs.
Clients that offer services in multiple countries require their content to be localized, and for a good reason: inhabitants of all regions of the world want to be respected and obtain content in their own language. And I agree, it's a simple matter of respect.
The usual suspects
The way localization is most often achieved is by detecting the user's country automatically. This can either be done by localizing the IP address (see an example), soon by simpler means with HTML5's geolocation (see an example) or by asking the user to select a country.
LaCie does just that.
I think that this last option is lazy, both on the company's and on the developer's part. The user should not have to make such choices, especially when there are ways to make such a selection invisible.
What happens from there is that the website content is presented in the language relative to the country. It mostly works, but there are some situations where this logic is not sufficient. Let's take the example of some European countries, like Belgium and Greece. In Belgium, French, Dutch (Flemish) and German are the official languages. In Greece, where obviously Greek is the language, there is also need for a specific alphabet.
From adidas's country selection page, if either Greece or Belgium is chosen, the user has no choice but to visit an English website.
To adidas's credit, there is the option to change country at any time, the site even offers you a choice whether or not you want the cookie to remember your country selection.
Some websites, such a Nike's may offer a simpler solution, only choose your language, not the country.
All these options ask an action from the user before they can even see your products or services, and that small irritant is the first interaction they have with your website.
In all online stores (let's not call these e-commerce no more, please?), there comes a moment where you want to write your shipping address to obtain your purchases. If you have offered your clients a multilingual website, it's just normal that the input fields should support special characters too, regardless of the language the client chose.
When I moved back from Amsterdam to Montréal, I had to change many addresses for many of my services, both physical and online.
Apple requires me to have a valid credit card in the country that I select, as their products availabilities are based on the locale. However, their form failed when I entered my address.
I get informed that the city, that I wrote "Montréal", contains illegal characters. Obviously, this turned out to be that I should not use the accent. This is ridiculous, the user should not be told there is something wrong when in fact there is not. How complicated is it really to handle accented characters? I mean, if you want to provide multilingual services, get your act together and do it everywhere.
There is also the peculiar case of Urban Outfitters. The american company has oftentimes been vilified for stealing designs from indie designers or for shamelessly using native names in their product names, so what I will present here should not come as a surprise.
In Québec, a law states that if a business has a brick and mortar store in the province, the business is responsible to also have a French side to it's website. As mentioned in my introduction, it's a matter of respect to your clients in the locale in which you offer your products and services.
Urban Outfitters did not, and when legally instructed to do so, they decided to simply not offer their clients in Québec with no access to their website whatsoever. Just go to the store.
That is one stupid way to use geolocation! You disrespect a locale and it's language, and at the same time you prevent those in the locale who can speak and read English from having access to your products. Great way to prevent sales!
The road ahead
Of these different approaches I make the following conclusion and add a recommendation for multilingual website and software creators: first, indeed do geolocation to offer the most relevant content to the user. Do give options to change not only the country, but also the language. Paypal is the closest to this idea. If you change your location to Canada, you can then change the language to the available languages is that country, namely French and English.
But here is where I want to get to with this post: why stop there? Indeed, do present the most logical languages relevant to that area, but do not block the other languages from being available, especially since you have them in the database already. I understand that it may be mostly be relevant for expats and travelers, but I strongly believe that this kind of market is growing.
The iTunes Store is built in order to lock you into a language depending on your country. Websites like YesAsia are built with the idea that the content should be available to everyone, even if the clients are not from Hong Kong, Japan or Korea, where their offices are. They offer not only options for locales and languages, but a reference to the value of the currency so the customers may have a general idea of what they will pay.
In the case of Paypal, as I said before languages are chosen by country. They have many more languages, they should offer them. I can understand that there may be issues in doing so. For example, English is not legally bounding in the Netherlands, so important options are not available, not even deleting an account. How about presenting all languages, and just like YesAsia does it, add a note that explains that whatever is said in translations, the version in the official language(s) of the locale prevail?
Ultimately, it's always about how much you really care about your clients. For example, Asian countries dislike it when they are presented with English text rather than localized. Ask your markets to help you make a better localized version of your products, don't just expect your clients to swallow whatever you feed them. This is the kind of stuff metrics will not really show in numbers, this is an analysis you can make from talking with your markets.